The Theory of Light & Matter
By Andrew Porter
Published by University of Georgia Press (2008)
Back in the day, junior high to be exact, a sort of traveling museum came to our school. This particular display of artifacts and whatnot apparently had something to do with science for it was during science class that we got to partake in the ogling of these really old things. I don’t remember much about the artifacts except for one item: a skull. Anyway, all of the items were placed on tables out in the open. In other words, you could touch the stuff although we were of course instructed not to. Well, I did not heed our instructions and in a bit of class clownery I grabbed the skull and began to move the jaw as if it were talking while I provided its voice. During this hilarity the jaw fell right off. I looked around to see if anyone with authority noticed and much to my good fortune no one did. So I placed the jaw back in place, sat the skull back down and moved on. A couple of minutes later a kid following me in line picked up the skull and the jaw (obviously) fell off again but this time landed with a thud on the table. Everyone noticed. And despite this kid’s honest and well-founded protests that “it was already broken” he got into a bit of trouble while I skated away freely.
I tell the above story because it’s the type of story you’ll find in Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light & Matter. Well, with three key differences. With Porter, the stories a) are actually good b) involve more dire consequences and c) contain emotional trauma that still resonates many years later. The stories, ten in all, are told in first person narratives and while a certain style and tone is present throughout Porter makes sure each narrator possesses a unique voice as well. The narrators vary in age, background and gender but they share the common trait of looking back on events where their actions (or inaction) may have led to negative results. Whether it’s a boy attempting to have an impossible relationship with an Amish girl, a college student having a relationship with one of her professors or the tragic death of a best friend who crawled into a sewer hole they are all looking back and wondering what amount of responsibility they bear for the end results.
Porter writes these stories in a very controlled manner. He doesn’t use histrionics or obvious personality or speech quirks to differentiate his various narrative agents. The stories are simply laid out in a controlled and almost casual manner. All of the narrators are reliable – at least as reliable as they can be considering they are divulging details of events in which people were emotionally or physically hurt and they may have been responsible in some way for those hurts. While it appears they are coming clean one gets the feeling that they may hold just a little back for reasons of self-preservation.
Some of the stories here are better than others. And of course those I prefer may be different than those you prefer. In some ways I guess all mea culpa are like that. Some you buy, some you don’t. I bought all of these because Porter gets at what it is to be human. He even made me realize that I actually still feel bad for that kid I got into trouble back in seventh grade. But not too bad.